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‘Snow White’ exhibition salutes film gem

written by Chad Jones, SF Gate

Before Buzz Lightyear, there had to be a Snow White. The history of animation took a major leap forward when Walt Disney’s first animated feature, indeed the first full-length animated feature film, premiered in December 1937.

Now that film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” celebrates its 75th anniversary with a special exhibition, the first of its kind for the 3-year-old Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco.

A few years ago, Lella Smith, the creative director of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library in Glendale (Los Angeles County), received a phone call from Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter.

“Diane wanted to create a show for the museum, and we thought ‘Snow White’ was the most logical choice because of its importance in the history of film,” Smith says on the phone from her office. “It was a full-length animated film at a time when no one was considering full length, and this one was in spectacular Technicolor. The animators treated the characters like human beings, so there’s a lot of emotion in it. ‘Snow White’ is a cinematic treasure and deserves a great show.”

The resulting exhibition, curated by Smith, contains more than 200 pieces, including original conceptual drawings and character studies (like early versions of Snow White looking like Betty Boop), story sketches, watercolor backgrounds, animation cels and vintage posters.

When thinking about the best way to approach the exhibition, Smith said the focus eventually settled on the artists who made the film.
Seminal movie

“Here was the film that Walt Disney used to develop the way that feature-length animation films would be made,” she says. “That gives us the opportunity to really look at all the elements of animation and all the thought and creativity that went into the movie.”

J.B. Kaufman, a film historian with a special fondness for Disney animation, is the author of two new books about “Snow White,” both published by the Walt Disney Family Museum. The first is the definitive history of the movie, “The Fairest of Them All: The Making of Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ ” and the second is the catalog for the exhibition, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film.”

Having been immersed the world of Snow White, the dwarfs and the Wicked Queen for about four years (as long as it took to make the movie itself), Kaufman says he still marvels at the beauty of the film.

“Some films get old when you see them multiple times. ‘Snow White’ gets better,” he says on the phone from his home in Wichita, Kan. “The film comes in the middle of the Disney Studio’s strongest period. They had been making Mickey Mouse cartoons and Silly Symphonies, and everything culminated in ‘Snow White.’ The movie is beautiful on its own, but gets even more impressive in context and becomes more fascinating when you learn how it was made.”

Disney and his team, which included 32 animators, 1,032 assistants, 107 in-betweeners, 10 layout artists, 25 background artists, 65 special effects animators, 158 inkers and painters, created innumerable sequences and gags that were ultimately never used in the movie.

“You had to get through a tremendous wealth of ideas to come up with the very best ideas, which you see in the film,” Kaufman says. “You can make a case, and I did, that two later films, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ are put together largely from leftovers from ‘Snow White,’ story ideas that were considered and never used.”
Life model

Few artists from the “Snow White” team are still around to talk about the film, but Marge Belcher Champion, 93, is always happy to talk about her experience serving as a life model for the Snow White character.

Best known for her work with then-husband Gower Champion and their stage and television work in the 1940s and ’50s, Champion earned $10 a day as a teenager testing costumes and trying out poses for the animators.

“They kept me secret for a while because Walt didn’t want people to think animators were just tracing from photographs, which they did not do,” Champion says on the phone from her Los Angeles home. “The animators were learning the movements they couldn’t do themselves. They were not young girl dancers.”

At one point, Champion even put on an oversize coat and was asked to dance like Dopey, one of the dwarfs. But it was her work as a reference model for Snow White that is most visible onscreen. “I can absolutely recognize myself up there,” Champion says.

As “Snow White” spread across the country in 1938, the film became a mammoth hit and essentially paved the way for Disney Studios to create an empire founded on animation. But is that debut feature really the fairest of them all? Kaufman thinks so.

“You can make a case for ‘Snow White’ as the crowning achievement of Walt Disney’s career as a filmmaker,” he says. “It’s really a polished gem of filmmaking. Not to cast a bad light on the later films, but there’s a kind of perfection about ‘Snow White’ that was never duplicated. When you’ve grown up with a film, as many of us have with this one, there’s a danger of taking it for granted. This exhibition is worth doing if only to get people to look at the film and appreciate it in a new way.” {sbox}

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic: Opens Thursday. Through April 14 Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery St., the Presidio, S.F. $12-$20 (free for members). (415) 345-6800.

Chad Jones is a freelance writer. E-mail:

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